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The Power of Place

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by Terri Lee Freeman, President, National Civil Rights Museum

 

Terri Lee Freeman was appointed president of the National Civil Rights Museum in November 2014. As president, Ms. Freeman is responsible for providing strategic leadership in furthering the museum's mission as an educational and cultural institution. Freeman has expanded the public programming of the museum by focusing on contemporary civil and human rights issues such as criminal justice, education, and basic human rights for marginalized populations. In 2018, Ms. Freeman created the "MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here?" to commemorate the global impact of Dr. King's life's work and recognition of his legacy 50 years after his assassination. 

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On April 4, 1968 our world was forever changed by a sniper’s bullet, killing the greatest peacemaker our nation had ever seen – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  That night my very being was shook because for the first time, I saw the strongest woman I knew cry, my mom.  While I was only 8 years old and too young to really understand the meaning of this tragic event, it was clear that something major had to have occurred to make my “rock” cry.  Fast forward 50 years, I could have never imagined that I would be responsible for the stewardship of the place where that event occurred.

It was that moment, in 1968 when the National Civil Rights Museum became a possibility.  And it was that moment, when little did I know it, my life would be changed as well.  In November 2014 I accepted the role of President at the National Civil Rights Museum.  My first visit to the Museum, I knew that serving in this role was a calling.  I had a visceral response when I looked at the balcony of the Lorraine, and the re-creation of the motel rooms where Dr. King stayed during several of his visits to Memphis, Tennessee.  As moved as I was by the power of the history within these walls, I was fully aware of the relevance of this place in November 2014 – two years after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin; four months after the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York City; three months following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  The National Civil Rights Museum could no longer simply be a place where history was presented.  It was critical that the interpretation of that history be made real in the context of the issues of the 21st century.

We are a new public square.  A safe place (cliché’ but its true) for people to be welcomed to have the conversations that have for too long gone un-had.  We use artifacts, art, thought leaders, performance, film to help people understand the difficult history that has made us (African Americans) the people we are and (the United States of America) the country that it is. The Museum has also taken a proactive position in introducing to many people the MLK they did not know.  Understanding Dr. King’s passion, not simply for equality, but also for equity and justice is key to how we interpret the relevance of the mid-20th century civil rights movement to today’s issues of economic equity, justice reform, fair housing/gentrification, violence, and the increase in domestic terrorism and hate crime.

Our role is not unique. Today’s museums are living, breathing places where the guests participate and contribute. But we have the power of our place; a place where history both happened and is happening.

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*DISCLAIMER*

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Vice President Biden, the Biden Institute or the University of Delaware.

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Biden Policy Dinner Guest Blog by Terri Lee Freeman
2/11/2019
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